Monday, February 15, 2021

Religion and Fiction

When it comes to challenges for book bloggers, I'll admit, I don't usually play.  However, this year, one caught my eye:  The Book Blog Discussion Challenge.  Basically the idea is to commit to posting a certain number of discussion posts during the year, and then to link up and follow other bloggers discussions.  This is my first entry for that challenge.  I signed up at the Dabbler level, but I'm aiming for the high end of the scale. 

Religion in Fiction

What part should religion play in fiction, or any popular media?  Should it be limited to the "religion" or "religious fiction" section?  If it is a general market book, is it ok to mention that a character went to church?  That something they heard in church affected their life or related to the problem at hand?  Does any mention of faith make a book a "no go" for people who aren't religious? 

Books from certain publishers are marketed as Christian fiction and authors who seek to be published by these imprints know there are "dos" and "don'ts" and people who buy them know they are buying books that comport with and seek to spread certain beliefs.  

But what should be the role of religion in books that are not marketed as religious fiction? While the numbers aren't what they once were, Sunday morning church attendance, at least periodically, is a regular part of life for a large number of Americans. However, while a Christmas episode of many TV shows from years past would at least show characters going into a church, in much of today's media if religious people are portrayed at all they are shown as hopelessly na├»ve, as caricatures  or as bullies/abusers.  The idea that religion is a normal part of life, but not a part that you are trying to beat others over the head with, seems to be missing from popular culture, including books.  Can you have characters who are people of faith and whose faith is operative in their lives without making your book a call for others to adopt your beliefs? 

Kathleen Basi's Thoughts:

I recently had the opportunity to discuss books and writing with Kathleen Basi, whose book A Song for The Road will be published in May. 

The main character in A Song for the Road is a church musician but the book is not published by a religious publisher.  Since I knew she had been trying for some time to get this book published, I asked Kathleen if she had tried Christian publishers.  Her response (my transcription/paraphrase of a verbal interview):
I've had a lot of anxiety over the years about my fiction.  For example, there's a little bit of mild language in this book, and it's not really who I am--but I know that it's authentic.  There are things that are talked about in this book, things that Miriam witnesses and things that are addressed head on such as sex outside of marriage and related issues that made me nervous as very committed Catholic whose faith is very, very important to me.
However, I believe we don't do ourselves any good by pretending that the ugly things in the world don't exist. If we create this Pleasantville kind of world in which everything is black and white, and there's the good guys and the bad guys , we contribute to a binary view of the world that does not hold up to reality. And if we want our faith to be able to witness to the real world, we have to acknowledge what the real world is like.  

To circle back around, I have always existed in a real anxiety about how I'm on the crack between secular fiction and Christian fiction, because I'm really coming at it with a Christian worldview. And yet, at the same time, I'm departing from the some of the topics that would be in most Christian fiction.

One of my critique partners all the way through was saying, "Well, of course, she's [Miriam] having an existential crisis, any person of faith who goes through what she's going through-- she's grappling with the loss of her family-- it would be weird and inauthentic if she didn't have these questions."

 Kathleen and I talked for quite some time, but here is where we talked about faith in fiction

From Penelope Stokes:

Years ago I interviewed another author, Penelope Stokes.  Stokes got her start in the Christian fiction market and her first books were pretty typical of the genre at that time--romance novels where one of the characters making peace with God was part of the story.  Stokes' writing evolved over the years to being less explicitly religious even though it was still published by a Christian imprint.  Eventually she moved to a secular publisher.   I asked if that was her choice, or if Christian publishers would not accept her newer books: 

That shift was intentional.... I wanted to be able to address issues of diversity from a spiritual perspective, and as you observed, I wasn’t able to do that in a conventional Christian publishing setting. 

I originally published in the evangelical markets because...that’s where I started...and...because at the time the general market wasn’t doing much with spiritual fiction.... It’s true that my general market novels contain subject matter that would be unacceptable to an evangelical publisher, and some of my early readers have castigated me for abandoning my faith. Nothing could be further from the truth.... I really want readers to see that our preconceived notions of God are just that—our notions. 

Do you ever expect to write Christian fiction again?
In the sense of writing evangelical novels that offer answers instead of raising questions? Probably not. But then, even when I was writing for the Christian markets, my novels didn’t fit that mold. I was always pretty much a duck out of water.

My Comments:

I am a woman of faith and just as I like it when I find books about "more mature" women, like me, I like finding books about people for whom faith is  part of life.   However, the more your book explicitly pushes your faith on me, the more I'm likely to roll my eyes. 

I like to see religious activities, even if "activity" means the church picnic, portrayed as normal part of life.   I don't think books have to be ABOUT faith to acknowledge that faith exists and is important to at least some people. 
Perhaps it is because I am a person of faith but I like reading stories where characters struggle with matters of faith or how that faith should affect their lives.  I agree with Kathleen that Christians don't do themselves any favors when they paint the world as black and white and put themselves and those like them on the good side of the fence and those not like them on the bad side--at least until the heathens convert. 

Reality is that any of us with a belief system, whether religious or secular,  that promotes any values other than selfishness, are going to run into situations that challenge us because none of is perfect or selfless.  Whether our struggles are with basic belief, or with sexual morality, or with how much comfort we should give up to benefit others, the struggles are there, and a part of us.  

There is a screenwriter named Barbara Nicolosi who used to be a Catholic blogger.  Something she said hit me:  
Too many Christians think we are supposed to use the arts to give people the answers. We’re not. We’re supposed to use the arts to lead them into a question.
So, what do you think about religion in fiction, particularly in fiction that isn't marketed as religious fiction?  Is it an automatic turn-off?  Is it okay if the characters' beliefs mirror yours, but otherwise, no thanks?  How big a part can it play in a story before you start feeling preached to?  Do you like explicitly religious fiction? 


  1. I read the Bible and religious poems but don't search specifically for religious novels.

    1. Since you read the Bible, I'll assume your beliefs are some version of Christianity or Judaism. If you picked up a book in your favorite genre which otherwise sounded appealing, had read 50 pages in and were enjoying the book at which point you found out that the main character was a Muslim, would that bother you? Would it bother you if s/he want to services at the local mosque, heard "blah blah"--a paragraph or two, not a page or two, which caused him or her to xyz which advanced the plot?

  2. As a Jew, I have a problem with Christian fiction that is evangelical in character. Jewish fiction usually doesn't have that (because Jews aren't allowed to evangelize). I've read books with characters that were Buddhist and Muslim and other religions with no problems. But if a book tries to convert me, then I'm going to DNF that book!

    1. One thing that really irks me about some Christian fiction is its portrayal of other religions--and "Other" means just about anything but the author's chosen type. If a good bit of the plot is devoted to telling me what's wrong with religion X, the book isn't getting a good review from me.

  3. I'm a lot like you. Even though I consider myself a person with a strong Christian faith, I'm not typically interested in reading Christian fiction. I often find that it comes off as too preachy or even cheesy. I love it when a Christian character is incorporated into a book, though (unless it's a stereotypically judgy or horrible Christian and that's the only representation, which aggravates me).

    I also have no problem with reading about other faiths, though, and I actually appreciate seeing the world through a character's eyes who doesn't necessarily look or act like me. I think people would be a lot more empathetic in general if they read more from the perspectives of people who don't have their exact worldview. Thanks for this thoughtful discussion!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction


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